CLEARWATER — There is a pocket within the long struggling downtown that holds a glimpse of what the city is trying to create.
Over the last few years, storefronts on the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street have filled up, creating a vibrant cluster of restaurants, bars and shops. Musicians flood the street with live music each week, and sometimes there’s even a wait list to be seated for dinner.
But beyond this two-block stretch, downtown is still largely hampered by empty storefronts and buildings in disrepair, despite decades of attempts to attract new businesses and investors.
In one of its largest efforts yet to incentivize property owners and tenants to bring life into their buildings, the Community Redevelopment Agency is launching three grant programs that will offer a total of $1.5 million for renovations, equipment purchases and rent abatement.
“It’s the first time the city has put this level of funding out there,” community redevelopment agency director Amanda Thompson said. “If our property owners and tenants don’t take advantage of these programs, I really don’t know what else we can do. It’s a big investment on part of the city.”
After the city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, approved the last of the three programs on Monday, officials expect to open the grants on May 1.
They are structured like this:
- The Beautification grant: this program is for property owners or tenants looking to improve the exterior of their buildings through painting, signage, lighting and other small repairs that cost $25,000 or less. The CRA will fully fund up to $5,000 and then provide up to a 50 percent match for the remainder of costs, totaling up to a $12,500 grant. This $25,000 portion could fund improvements at 20 properties. Recipients are required to have a tenant or an incoming tenant when the improvements are made.
- The Whitebox grant: this is for property owners or tenants pursuing $100,000 or less in renovations that will generate more foot traffic. This could include interior upgrades like electrical and lighting work, basic air conditioning, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, code improvements, and other jobs. The CRA will fully fund grants of $25,000 and then provide a 50 percent match up to a maximum of $50,000. With a $300,000 budget, this program could cover six properties. This is reserved for vacant properties.
- The Vacancy Reduction grant: this program is restricted to property owners pursuing renovations of more than $500,000 at persistently vacant properties. The grant is split into two portions. The first applicable to internal and external improvements where the CRA will provide up to a 50 percent match up to $500,000. The second portion, a 50 percent match up to $500,000, is geared toward specialty equipment, as in a brewery or comedy club, and rent abatement. The $1 million could cover two grants.
All funds will be distributed as reimbursements for expenses paid. They are also targeted towards commercial and retail uses and restricted to properties on the tax rolls.
The grants will be open to properties within the entire 488 acres of the community redevelopment agency, which is defined by Drew Street to the north, Highland Avenue to the east, Court Street to the south and Clearwater Harbor to the west.
However the city is preparing to break ground on a $64 million renovation of the downtown waterfront to build a new outdoor concert venue with a covering over 4,000 seats, green space lawn, garden, playground, walking trail and gateway plaza — a project that aims to attract businesses and investors to the surrounding downtown blocks.
But as the city was developing its park plan between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology bought about 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront.
Today more than half of those 100 storefronts and lots remain empty, most on prime stretches of the business district where the city hopes to bring a revival in restaurants, shops and entertainment.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said he wants to review the programs after six months to analyze which is receiving most demand and whether the program is structured correctly.
“I think it’s a tool in the toolbox,” Hibbard said. “Staff has put their best efforts forward, but what we believe the downtown businesses will purse versus what they pursue can be two different things.”